Our plastic lifestyle is killing coral reefs. A first-of-its-kind study published on Thursday found that an estimated 11.1 billion pieces of ocean plastic trash are lodged in coral reefs across the Asia-Pacific region, increasing corals’ susceptibility to potentially deadly diseases by as much as 89 percent.
(From Oceans Deeply/ By Todd Woody) — Scientists examined 124,884 corals at 159 reefs from Thailand to Australia, finding plastic bottles, bags, fishing line and even Nike shoes wedged among colorful corals. The region is home to 55.5 percent of the world’s coral reefs, which harbor a quarter of marine species and provide food and livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people.
“Plastics are a triple whammy for coral infections,” said Drew Harvell, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University who conducted reef surveys in Indonesia for the study published in Science.
First, plastic debris can cut open corals’ delicate skin, exposing them to infection. Second, ocean plastic trash is often colonized by bacteria that can directly introduce disease to corals. And third, plastic can shade corals, blocking light and creating conditions that allow certain pathogens to thrive.
“These diseases are pretty damaging to corals,” Harvell said. “Once a coral has one of these diseases, it can kill the whole colony, and once an infection starts on one coral colony, it can build up steam and spread to other ones.”
“I think it’s a huge new impact to show that these plastics are so dirty that they can be creating wounds and infectious disease,” she added.
The researchers predict the amount of plastic caught on coral reefs will spike 40 percent by 2025 to 15.7 billion pieces.
The findings come as coral reefs are under unprecedented stress from climate change. Rising ocean temperatures have triggered back-to-back coral bleaching events in which the algae that live in corals and provide them with nutrition and their color, become toxic. The corals expel the algae and turn bone white. Deprived of nutrition, corals can die unless ocean temperatures cool and the algae return. A groundbreaking studypublished January 4 concluded that coral bleaching – a phenomenon virtually unknown before 1980 – is now accelerating at a rate that will not give reefs enough time to recover before the next heat wave hits.
“We don’t have the data to say whether infected corals would be more susceptible to bleaching, but it seems likely,” said Harvell. Also unknown is…